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A Curious Calling: Mick Pedroli, Dennis Severs House

Contemporary art is not always as it seems

Written by . Published on August 22nd 2011.

A Curious Calling: Mick Pedroli, Dennis Severs House

AS every younger sibling knows, there is no mischief quite so magical as sneaking into the bedrooms of your absent family members. And this is exactly what is possible, what is almost the point, in a visit to Dennis Severs’ House. Tucked between the mirrored architecture of the City and the heaving patchwork of Brick Lane, it belongs to a make-believe eighteenth or nineteenth century family around who’s lives you can wander for the cost of £12 There is food still on the table, books left open, covers thrown back, smells you cannot place. Each room is drunk on British past and somebody else’s present. And then you are hit with the force of Victorian morals in the billowing underclothes and typed reprimands carefully positioned around the house.

This is domestic still-life drama, an art installation that lives out the lives of occupants that almost don’t exist. Created by Dennis Severs in 1979, it is now managed by Amsterdam-born Mick Pedroli, whose curious calling I am tempted to refer to as ‘foster father to imaginary friends’.

How long have you been here?
Sixteen years. I used to run coffee shops in Amsterdam. Dennis was a customer there. When I sold my businesses I bumped into him and he invited me to work for him. I was very open-minded about my future and I really liked the scene, so I moved here in March ’95.

It’s a contemporary art form. It was open one Sunday a month for the general public, but throughout the week he had small pieces of performance theatre.

Did you live in the house?
I did from ’95 to ‘96. The house is always lived in as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dennis lived here for twenty years until his death in ’99. The idea is that there is life in the house. Otherwise it feels like a dead-space. Dennis called himself a domestic still-life drama artist. This is a collection of still-lives in 3D.

Did he live like a nineteenth century man?
Not at all. He was a very modern chap. He had a very modern vision of this house. It’s a contemporary art form. It was open one Sunday a month for the general public, but throughout the week he had small pieces of performance theatre. That created his initial fame. It was very underground.

I love all the food, the just-bitten scones and half-eaten breakfasts...
That’s part of the fun. When I first arrived, we had a dinner party on the Saturday night to celebrate. We left all the chicken carcass out for the guests to enjoy the next day. The Jarvis family, for us, are really alive. So when a scone is bitten, it’s us. When they eat an apple or piss in the chamber pots, it’s us. All to create the effect that the family has just left. We talk about them a lot. I tweet about them as well.

Who were they originally?
They’re a fictitious family. Dennis found two portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Jarvis and created them over the years. We still add to them to keep them alive. They are always in that same time period as when they moved in; they do grow up. The house evolves.


Dsh Dining Room Roelof BakkerDining Room

Could you imagine someone doing a similar thing but of the present era?
Well, in many respects Tracy Emin’s first big work, the bed, is a similar concept. It’s about your perception. If you just want to see it as a bed, with stuff, that’s what it is. If you see it as ‘wow, she really had sex in there and left everything behind’ then that creates a picture in your mind and in your heart. That’s exactly what we do here.


Can you see an artistic element in everything?
I see art or beauty in many things around us. The normal stuff that people create – even the mess around bins – creates a picture that is framed in time. The riots, for instance, there are pictures that will be engraved in our minds. Destruction and death is not art. But in the pictures there can be art. You have to cut yourself off from the emotion. Equally if you come to this house you can look at things, you can think ‘Oh I’ve got one of those vases’, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re invited to play a game, to open your mind, to use your senses.

And there is that warning, "What! You're still looking at 'things' instead of what 'things' are doing?”
Those were Dennis’ words. When he died, it was essential for me to keep him alive. But I took out some of his leaflets that were quite offensive.

Like what?
He had one that said in big letters “Look at you! Some of you scurry around like mice, others like rats, you’re just as lost in your own world as you are in mine.” I took that one out. If Dennis was here and people took the piss, he would go loopy. He would chuck them out and shout at them. I was on the door; I could hear it brewing inside. ‘Get out of my fucking house! Mick, give those people their money back!” I’d grab the money and chuck it after them. I more appreciate that now that I run the show and we put in so much of ourselves and our time. If people start picking at things you can get really upset.

Why was Dennis so taken with this particular era?
He was taken with England. He was from Escondido. His mum died when he was seven. He saw TV programs and old paintings of London and the rest of England and recognised it as the place he wanted to be. When he was sixteen, he came on holiday and fell in love straight away. He graduated when he was seventeen and moved here. He was very charming and handsome. He wanted to be a solicitor, but found out he was dyslexic. I think he wanted to create a home and the warmth he had missed when he was growing up. That’s my amateur psychoanalysis.

Which is your favourite room?
The kitchen. I think it is the least pretentious. But in summertime my favourite is the Victorian room. I like to have naps there when it’s really warm.


To read about more curious callings, pelase click here

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